- Cancer Information
- Family and friends
- Talking to kids about cancer
- Talking about the diagnosis
- When a sibling has cancer
When a sibling has cancer
The siblings of children with cancer sometimes feel forgotten in the midst of a diagnosis. Parental attention is suddenly shifted, and daily routines, family roles and family responsibilities can change for a while.
Along with feelings of sadness, fear and anxiety, siblings may struggle with more complex emotions such as guilt, jealousy, resentment and anger. With so much focus on their brother or sister, they may feel that their needs do not deserve to be met and they have no right to complain.
For many children and teenagers, fitting in with their peers is very important. This means they may feel self-conscious about their family being different from others. Some may be reluctant to tell their friends and teachers about the situation at home. If cancer changes how their brother or sister looks, they may feel embarrassed and shy away from being seen with their sibling.
You can help your children adjust to the changes in your family by talking openly and honestly. The tips in When another child has cancer will help, but your kids may also be reassured to know the following:
It’s not their fault
Check that siblings realise that they did not cause their brother or sister’s cancer – even if they had been fighting with them or thinking mean thoughts about them.
What they can do
Explain that they can help support their brother or sister, and let them think about how they would like to do that.
The sibling relationship is still important, so try to offer plenty of opportunities to maintain it. This may involve regular visits to the hospital and/or regular contact via texting, email or social media.
It is okay to have fun
Most siblings argue at times, and it’s natural to be annoyed with a sibling who has cancer too. Being overprotective of a child with cancer can be harmful to them and their siblings.
They are loved
Explain to siblings that you may need to spend a lot of time and energy focused on the child with cancer, but this is out of necessity rather than feeling any less love for your other children.
They will always be looked after
Let your children know that you will make sure someone is always there to look after them.
My third child, Leo, was diagnosed with leukaemia when he was 5 years old. We didn’t tell the kids straightaway – we needed time to digest the news ourselves. I couldn’t even tell my parents.
Leo knew he was sick because he felt so unwell. We told him he was in the best place and that the doctors and nurses would help to make him better. That was enough at first.
Because Leo’s siblings were such different ages, I told them individually, but the key messages were the same: Leo hadn’t done anything to cause the leukaemia, it’s not contagious, and he would get well – it was important to offer hope. I told them that Leo would look different because of the treatment and that it would take a long while.
We wanted all the kids to feel involved with Leo’s treatment – we said, “You are part of the team, you are part of this.” The hospital became part of our family life.
GENEVIEVE, MOTHER OF FOUR CHILDREN AGED 3, 5, 10 AND 14
Podcast: Family Dynamics and Cancer
Prof Jane Turner AM, International Psycho-Oncology Society President Emeritus,The University of Queensland, QLD; Taylor Baker, Consumer; Dr Ben Britton, Principal Clinical and Health Psychologist, Head of Psychology, Hunter New England Mental Health, NSW; Camp Quality; Dr Lisa Cuddeford, Head of Department, WA Paediatric Palliative Care Service, Perth Children’s Hospital, WA; A/Prof Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology–Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sarah Ellis, Clinical Psychologist, Kids Cancer Centre, Sydney Children’s Hospital, NSW; Malia Emberson-Lafoa’i, Consumer; Kate Fernandez, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Jane Gillard, Consumer; Mary McGowan OAM, International Childhood Cancer Advocate, VIC; Annette Polizois, Senior Social Worker, Women, Family and Emergency Care Team, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Rhondda Rytmeister, Clinical Psychologist, HeadWayHealth (formerly Snr Clinical Psychologist, The Cancer Centre for Children, Westmead, NSW); Nadine Street, Head of Social Work and Social Welfare, HNE Mental Health Service, NSW; Warren Summers, Online Counsellor, Canteen, NSW.
We would also like to thank the health professionals, consumers, organisations and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title, and we are grateful to the parents and young people whose real-life stories have added to the richness and relevance of this book.
We thank and acknowledge Dr Paula K. Rauch, MD, Founder and Director, Marjorie E. Korff PACT (Parenting At a Challenging Time) Program and Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School, whose research and writing on helping parents talk to their children about cancer was used as source material for this book and has been adapted in several sections: pages 8–11, How children understand cancer; page 22, Answering key questions: Are you going to die?; page 26, Involving the school or preschool; pages 30–31, Hospital visits; and pages 36–37, Encouraging family time. We also thank the American Cancer Society for permission to use and adapt material on pages 8-11 from its book Cancer in Our Family: Helping children cope with a parent’s illness (2013); Macmillan Cancer Support for permission to use its book Talking to Children and Teenagers When an Adult Has Cancer (2013) as a source of information; Jessica Watt, Oncology Social Worker, The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, for her contribution on page 20, When another child has cancer; and Diane McGeachy, Hobart Counselling Centre, for contributing material for page 37, Spending one-on-one time.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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